Room Service for Two

by: Peter Bodo | July 27, 2010

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102545975 by Pete Bodo

The pool of specialists at the apex of any field is relatively small, so it's hardly surprising that Roger Federer has made an aggressive move to address his declining fortunes by hiring Paul Annacone, the coach best known for shepherding Pete Sampras through his glory years. I felt this was a good fit two years ago (feel free to check out my original post on the subject, based partly on an extensive conversation with Annacone), and I still believe that if there's a right guy for Federer, it's Annacone.

A lot can change in tennis in a few years. Annacone finished with Sampras not long after Pete played—and won—his last major in 2002. Annacone went on to coach Tim Henman and work in the developmental trenches for both the USTA and British Lawn Tennis Association. But developing youngsters and dealing with bureaucrats never seemed to be the best use of Annacone's talents, among which the most valuable one might be his grasp of a thoroughbred tennis champion's way of thinking. As he told me two years ago:

"I honestly felt Pete was the best player I ever saw. I felt like the biggest thing I could do was figure out what I wanted to say, and find the way he needed to hear it. Because the great ones are tricky that way. They need the support and reassurance, because they live with a tremendous amount of self-inflicted pressure. But they also like to have that pressure alleviated, without feeling that someone else is doing that for them."

The aspects of Annacone's personality and methodology that ought to make this a good fit aren't based on evolving theories of tennis technique or strategy. Federer is a fully formed player and a consummate professional, closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He's done the heavy lifting of career already (16 Grand Slam singles titles). Clearly, he wants to squeeze the last drops of juice out of the orange, a task that ought to be a relatively easy undertaking. But it's never that simple for the Federers and Samprases of the world, because of the pressure they feel—can't help but feel—as the chorus of critics grows more and more voluble. And as the currents of age erode the bedrock of their talents.

It drove Sampras nuts, near the end of his career, when all anyone wanted to know was, "When are you going to retire?" Sampras was convinced that his well of greatness had not run dry, but he grew quietly desperate. He couldn't banish the voices of those critics and pundits from his head. He ended up firing Annacone and thrashing around with a few other coaches (ironically, Jose Higueras, a former part-time coach of Federer's, was one of them) before he swallowed his pride and re-hired Annacone to make a final, successful push.

Federer isn't in such desperate, late-career straits. But we can assume from his decision to revisit (for what, the third, fifth, ninth time?) the issue of whether or not he needs a coach that his recent inconsistency and failure at the last two Grand Slam tournaments has cut deeper than he originally let on.

So, does Federer need a coach? Absolutely not.

Will Federer's life be easier and the frustrations and obstacles be made more navigable if he has a coach?  Absolutely.

Annacone was not a coach cum travel agent cum bag carrier cum pizza runner. Pete Sampras was not a player who needed or wanted a valet masquerading as a coach. Theirs was a relationship of mature men, committed to a common purpose—Sampras's pursuit of greater glory (I'm confident saying that, having been Sampras's co-author on his autobiography, A Champion's Mind). Annacone's job could just as appropriately be termed "wingman." It's valuable to feel like you've got someone watching your back when untold legions are trying to stick a knife in it.

The independent-minded, self-starting, semi-control freak Federer never really needed a wingman when the times were good. Oh, he had plenty of help along the way early in his career, starting with the late Peter Carter, who coached Federer through his formative teenage years (Carter was killed in an automobile accident at age 37 in August of 2002). But Federer achieved greatness and fulfilled his potential as something of a savant and loner. And once the times became good for Federer, they stayed good. That helps explain why none of his coaching relationships after Carter's death really seemed dynamic, or especially productive. Now, his smooth road has become bumpy.

Great players often have to re-invent themselves, in their own minds if not in a way that's conspicuous to most fans. Federer's new identity is likely to have a slightly harder edge; he won't be seen as floating above it all, but as a veteran grappling with the assorted frustrations, challenges and setbacks that accompany the aging of a player. Annacone will certainly help him understand and deal with those; he'll prop him up in those moments when Federer will be tempted to feel bitter, or self-doubting. What Federer is really saying, with this hire, is that he's in it for the long haul. We should all be glad for that, because he could just as easily have decided to play out the string quietly, thinking, Who needs this? Who needs to keep hearing, Federer is finished, or, What's wrong with Federer?

85275044 It's somewhat eerie that Annacone himself was hired after Sampras lost Tim Gullikson, who, like Carter, died an tragic and untimely death (Gullickson, who brought Sampras to the threshold of greatness, died of brain cancer in 1996). It's one of those things that will bond coach and player together, even if it's discussed rarely, in a quiet moment over a room service dinner for two.

Which brings up another, slightly mundane aspect of Federer's decision: His children will be toddlers soon, and I doubt that Federer's wife, Mirka, will want to be dragging them around the globe, dropping them off at the tournament day care center while she sits in the player guest box, playing with her Blackberry. Federer seems dedicated to spending a fair amount more time on airplanes, and in hotel and locker rooms. He's likely to become a dad who goes to work every day and travels a fair amount, while his wife and children build a home life. It will be good for him to have a companion on the road.

It used to drive Annacone slightly batty when Sampras would choose to play on an opponent's terms, rather than his own, just to show that he could do it and still win. Before Pete played a guy like that, Paul would gently remind him, "Just go out and show him you're Pete Sampras, and he's not. Shut him down."

In the coming months and years, Federer will likely need to be reminded from time to time that he's Roger Federer and the other guy is not. Annacone is the right man to do that reminding, for he knows what words to use, and what those words suggest Federer do when it comes to the X's and Os of the game. About which Annacone also knows a great deal. 

Check in tomorrow for more on this development by TW contributor—and Federer expert—Andrew Burton.

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